Where should Christians draw the line in trying to make the U.S. a Christian nation?
In terms of religion, it is not a matter of “trying to make” the United States a Christian nation. The U.S. has always been a Christian nation from the earliest colonial settlements. It remains a Christian nation today. The vast majority of U.S. citizenry claim at least a nominal adherence to Christianity, and, amazingly enough, the majority of our new immigrants make a similar claim—even those from Asian countries. The U.S. was founded upon Christian principles and beliefs.
However, the idea of where to “draw the line” deserves considerable attention. There is indeed a line a nation crosses in violating the free exercise of religion, as well as the freedom of conscience.
In America, this “line” has shifted over the years. In other words, as the definition of a ”religious establishment” has changed, the concept of America as a Christian nation has also changed. In America, it has become politically incorrect to refer to the U.S. in religious terms according to the religion of the majority.
Such was not always the case. Historically, throughout the world, America has always been considered a Christian nation. Why? Because Christianity was the dominant religion of the land. Christianity shaped the thinking of America's forefathers and informed the making of public policy and law. Christianity was a part of the common law; it was woven throughout the fabric of American life.
There was a formal side to this, and there was an informal side as well. America's earlier days saw formal religious establishments in as many as nine of the original thirteen colonies. In fact, the various states had official establishments dating back to Virginia in 1609, with Massachusetts as the last state to disestablish in 1833. How was a formal establishment understood during America's earlier days?
In the American context, an officially-established religion might have a defining creed; it might administer rites and ordinances; it might ordain ministers qualified to teach matters of doctrine; it might administer tests for conformity; it might offer exclusive political rights, and might compel attendance. These qualifications are not pulled out of thin air. They come from House and Senate Judiciary Committee reports as offered in 1853-1854. Congress was offering a general description of a formal religious establishment. (There were, of course, variations on this description.)
When the framers of the federal constitution came to this subject they decided against any type of formal establishment. There would be no official religious test for elected officials. The test was placed directly in the hands of the voters. Concerning formal religious establishments, this was a State matter. The national government was powerless over religious matters, except in assuring there was no national establishment and in guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.
As mentioned above, however, the various States gradually removed the formal religious establishments from their governing systems. After 1833, the U.S. was left with an informal relationship between the Church and the State—between religion and the state—at both the national and state level. This is where we are today. We are a Christian nation with an informal relationship between religion and government.
So, where do we “cross the line” when dealing with religion? We cross the line when we try to re-establish the formal relationship that once existed in America. Nobody desires to have either a State or a federal establishment of religion. This is not apart of the Christian political agenda. However, there are those who have this fear.
For example, a pastor speaking on the radio recently described the Christian Coalition as “dangerous” because they were trying to accomplish something similar to what Constantine tried to accomplish with miserable results. (As Roman Emperor, Constantine established Christianity as the state religion back in the fourth century.) Essentially, this pastor was saying that the Christian Coalition is trying to formally establish Christianity as the religion of America. The agenda of this particular political group does not support the pastor's contention.
Why the confusion? This pastor has accepted the idea that morality and religion are synonymous. He appears to believe that, for example, halting the spread of pornography establishes religion. Or that protecting the life of the unborn is a doctrinal statement. He seems to think that standing against the teaching of deviant sexual behavior in public education is a religious issue. Or that allowing prayers at graduation ceremonies violates another's rights of conscience. Indeed, the pastor has accepted the rhetoric of the mass media and the social secularists.
Political action on these issues—abortion, school prayer, the traditional family, etc.—is not an establishment of religion. American is fully capable of taking political positions on moral matters without establishing a religion. America is fully capable of instituting public policies that reflect the thinking and attitudes of most Christians, indeed most Americans, without establishing Christianity. America is fully capable of being a Christian nation without violating the rights of conscience or the free exercise of religion. Anything less is “crossing the line.”
Recommended for further reading
- The truth about “Separation of Church and State”—When did the government pass this law and where can it be found? Answer
- What is the legal and moral role of the Bible and Christianity in the U.S.A.? Should God be separated from American government? Answer
- How important is it to be “Politically Correct?” Answer
- What is legally permissible for students in America's public schools? Answer
- Is the religion of Secular Humanism being taught in public school classrooms? Answer
- Should Christians seek political power, or should we only focus on evangelism? Answer
- David W. Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion (Wallbuilder Press, 1996).
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